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The Trailer: The suburbs, young voters, the Trump base and more of what mattered in Tuesday's primaries

In this special post-primary edition: The meaning of last night's primaries, the exit polls that explain how we got here, and the reason Bernie Sanders isn't quitting.

According to every poll, even Americans who do not support this newsletter say they agree with it. This is The Trailer.

Bernie Sanders did everything he could to win the Michigan primary. He ran new, tough ads, warning voters that Joe Biden couldn't be trusted with their jobs or Social Security. He campaigned across the state, scrapping trips to Missouri and Mississippi so he could spend time in Dearborn and Flint. And as he'd done in almost every other contest, he dispatched a volunteer army to outwork the former vice president.

None of it paid off. Biden's win in Michigan was a devastating blow for Sanders, a knockout in the place that rescued the senator's 2016 campaign. It did more than narrow any path Sanders had to the Democratic nomination — it shredded a central premise of his politics, that working-class voters in the Midwest could be mobilized by left-wing, revolutionary politics. 

That wasn't just a problem in Michigan. Turnout grew in Missouri and Mississippi, and in the three states that replaced caucuses with primaries. But still Sanders lost ground everywhere. In the three “M's,” he could not carry a single county, not even the ones that surrounded liberal college towns. In Idaho and Washington, new voters overwhelmed the old Sanders coalition. Even in North Dakota, Sanders's one clear win for the night, his margin shrank by more than half since 2016.

Twenty-one days ago, Mike Bloomberg's presidential campaign issued a warning, insisting that Sanders was on an unstoppable march to the Democratic nomination unless other candidates dropped out and united. The memo was wrong, in that Bloomberg was not the candidate who could take down Sanders. But it contained some accidental prescience, sketching out a two-way contest that Sanders could not win unless he dramatically expanded his coalition.

Suburban voters keep turning out and delivering for Biden. The stop-Sanders coalition was most visible in Michigan, where Oakland and Macomb counties, the suburbs of Detroit, delivered Biden margins that Sanders could not overcome. But the suburban surge happened everywhere, even in places where neither Democrat campaigned.

One example is DeSoto County, which contains the Mississippi-based suburbs of Memphis. Four years ago, just 7,671 votes were cast for all candidates in the Democratic primary, and Hillary Clinton won 5,620 of them. In 2008, when Barack Obama won a landslide in Mississippi, the county cast slightly more than 10,000 votes. But in Tuesday’s primary, DeSoto cast 11,102 votes, and Biden won 8,592 of them. That tracks with what happened in the state’s 2018 and 2019 elections, when even as Democrats lost statewide races, they gained ground in suburbs.

The pattern was starker in Missouri, where statewide turnout was up only marginally from 2016 — just by 6 percent overall. In Clay County, the suburbs north of Kansas City, 29,088 votes were cast, up from 23,402 votes four years ago. That was a 24 percent spike in local turnout, and it came while Sanders lost ground, taking 12,574 votes in the contest with Clinton but just 10,534 against Sanders. (Biden held a rally in Kansas City itself, a county away, while Sanders canceled a planned stop there.)

In Michigan, the suburban surge has led to a Biden rout in Oakland County and a similar lead in Macomb County, both outside Detroit. Four years ago, Clinton won a total of 139,893 votes in those counties; Biden won 211,476 votes. Even in Washtenaw County, home to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Sanders added 8,004 votes from 2016 to 2020, while Biden outran Clinton by 18,756 votes. Sanders kept his strength with voters under 30 on college campuses, but Biden demolished him with the sort of credentialed, educated, middle-class voters who live in college towns.

White rural voters keep walking away from Democrats. The flip side of the party's suburban successes is its continued decline in rural areas, some where they had been fairly competitive before Obama's presidency. 

A good example is Missouri's “boot heel” region, which until 2016 had been winnable for Democrats who performed well statewide. In the 2008 primary, the six counties of the boot heel cast 16,964 votes. In 2016, they cast just 8,929 votes. Yesterday, just 5,851 votes came out of the boot heel, even as turnout overall was increasing. Sanders had won every county in the boot heel four years ago; on Tuesday, he lost them all to Biden.

That was a continuation of what we saw in last week's contests in Oklahoma and Arkansas, states where the ancestral Democratic Party has declined, while the suburban and urban party is growing. It's been devastating to Sanders, revealing just how much of his 2016 support probably came from voters who wanted to send a message of opposition to Hillary Clinton but never supported the Sanders agenda. Exit polling backs that up. In 2016, Sanders won 44 percent of voters who considered themselves “moderate” or “conservative.” Yesterday, Sanders's share of that vote fell by half, making his loss to Biden among “liberal” voters even worse.

Sanders's many opponents inside the party could be cheered by this, as the senator's new coalition is not enough to win him any big upcoming states. But the rural decline is bad for all kinds of Democrats. No 2020 candidate spent more time and energy trying to prove that white working-class voters could be brought back into politics, on the left, if they were reached with a compelling economic message. That theory looked shaky last week, and after Tuesday, it looks like pure fantasy.

Phasing out caucuses badly hurt Sanders. After last night, we've seen six primaries unfold in states that previously held caucuses: Colorado, Idaho, Maine, Minnesota, Utah and Washington. We've seen three states that held caucuses before hold modified caucuses designed to raise turnout: Iowa, Nevada and North Dakota. Sanders has gone three for three in the popular vote in those caucus states, while going two for six in the new primary states, pending the final results in Washington.

As much as any other result last night, this is cutting off the path Sanders walked to get to the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Like other insurgent candidates, Sanders benefited tremendously from caucuses, lower-turnout events where grass-roots organizing can overwhelm the party rank-and-file. In 2008 and 2016, Clinton watched her opponents rack up wins in caucuses. In the first race, that gave Obama a lead she could never overcome; in the second, it allowed Sanders to stay alive through June, arguing that the late caucus contests were giving him momentum.

Without caucuses, there is no place for Sanders to get that boost. The results from Idaho said it all. In 2016, Sanders routed Clinton by 57 points in that state, winning its delegates by a margin of 18 to 5. By winning Idaho yesterday, Biden is on track to win 11 of the state's delegates, to just nine for Sanders. Pulling caucuses off the calendar will, if Sanders does not change his coalition, deny him any of the sort of wins that kept him in the hunt before.

Young voters remain skeptical of Biden. Some of the former vice president's most zealous supporters have gotten ahead of themselves, arguing that he's put the “Obama coalition” together. That's a little hasty. Biden continues to lose badly among voters under 30, a cohort that turned out massively for Obama 12 years ago.

According to the adjusted exit polls, Biden lost young voters to Sanders by 26 points in Mississippi, 45 points in Missouri and by 57 points in Michigan. Biden did win black voters under 30 in Mississippi, the only one of these states where they made up a big enough share of the electorate for pollsters to catch. But he lost white voters under 30 to Sanders, by a 60-point margin in Michigan and by a 50-point margin in Missouri.

Four years ago, Sanders defeated Clinton by similar margins with voters under 30. But Clinton made many attempts, however awkward, to appeal to younger voters. Biden hasn't. In Michigan, a state that legalized marijuana with a 2018 ballot measure, Biden was the one candidate who did not favor national legalization. In Iowa, he had dismissed a young Latino protester angry about Obama-era deportations, telling him to “vote for Trump.” Sanders planned to rev up youth turnout by promising the cancellation of student debt and free college tuition; Biden didn't engage in that discussion at all. The effects were visible in every state yesterday, just not enough to cost Biden his wins.

President Trump's base can't wait to start voting. In every contest held this year, Republicans have set a turnout record for the party in control of the presidency. It's been easy to look past, as Democratic turnout has been far higher, even in red states. In Mississippi, for example, at least 263,351 people participated in the Democrats' primary, while just 237,927 turned up for Republicans. (Thirty-four precincts remain to be counted.) The state has voted Republican in presidential elections since 1980, but the numbers were notable.

That was still a historically high show of support for the president by his base. In 2012, the last time that Democrats held an uncontested Mississippi primary while they held the White House, Obama won just 97,304 votes. Trump has now easily blown past the old Obama numbers in every competitive state and done so with only minimal protest voting for his primary challenger, former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld. In Utah, a state that voted last week and saw a massive protest vote against Trump in 2016, the president won 88 percent of the vote, and Republicans outvoted Democrats by a five-to-three margin. 

Trump did that with a multiyear investment from his campaign and the Republican National Committee. After the past few weeks, it's safe to say that the GOP has built a better turnout operation than Sanders, the Democratic candidate whose organization was supposed to be his calling card in a race against Trump. It is objectively a bigger, better-staffed operation than the one Biden has put together so far, with big implications for what comes next.

Reading list

“Joe Biden rolls up victories as Bernie Sanders struggles for a foothold in the Democratic race,” by Sean Sullivan, Matt Viser, and Michael Scherer

Sorting through the Michigan rubble.

“The one-woman campaign to get Michigan back for the Dems,” by Erick Trickey

The passion of Debbie Dingell.

The week Bernie Sanders realized he was losing, by Ruby Cramer

Inside the rooms where Sanders and his team began to worry.

“In a week Sanders had to get right, he couldn’t grow support or change the story line,” by Sean Sullivan

Why the last-ditch effort to make a stand in Michigan did not work.

Poll watch

Just like last week's, the March 10 wave of primary exit polling is complicated by the robust early vote. 

Michigan conducted its first big election under new voting laws passed by voters in 2018, which allowed hundreds of thousands of early ballots. Exit pollsters did not talk to those voters. Washington conducted its primary, like all of its modern elections, through mail ballots, which left a six-figure pile of votes for candidates such as Elizabeth Warren and Mike Bloomberg. Only in Missouri and Mississippi did exit pollsters match up pretty clearly with the electorate as it stood after Super Tuesday. (There was no exit polling in Idaho or North Dakota.)

Sanders never solved his electability problem. It was looming for years: Voters simply did not think that Sanders, a Democratic socialist with an agenda that would cost trillions of dollars, was a safe bet in a general election. In the 2016 primary in Michigan, voters who said “electability” was their top factor when looking at a candidate backed Hillary Clinton by 73 to 27 over Sanders. But those voters made up just 11 percent of the primary electorate.

Everything changed with Trump's November 2016 win. Yesterday, 58 percent of Michigan voters said their top issue was whether a candidate “can beat Trump.” Biden won those voters by 32 points, actually a smaller margin than Clinton put up. It did not matter that the “electability” candidate lost to Trump last time; what mattered was that voters could not imagine Sanders winning an election. In Mississippi, just 51 percent of primary voters said they were picking the best candidate to beat Trump. But Biden's margin was even bigger there, with voters seeing him as more electable than Sanders by 75 points.

Democrats still support Medicare-for-all, while rejecting its sponsor. In every state that has voted so far, Democrats have told exit pollsters that they support upending the health-care system, with “a government plan for all instead of private insurance.” In most of those states, voters have rejected Sanders.

In Mississippi, 60 percent of voters backed Medicare-for-all, and Biden won them by 58 points. In other states, he lost Medicare-for-all supporters, but by much smaller margins than he was winning with the idea's opponents. In Missouri, supporters of Medicare-for-all backed Sanders by 11 points, while opponents backed Biden by 67 points. In Washington, the March 10 state where the policy was most popular (63 percent support), 22 percent of Medicare-for-all adherents backed Biden. Just 5 percent of its opponents backed Sanders.

At the start of this primary, Sanders and most of the strongest-polling candidates supported his legislation. When Biden entered the race, he was the sole Democrat polling in double digits who did not support either Medicare-for-all or the eventual goal of single-payer health care. But after the issue tangled up every other candidate, often with a push from Sanders supporters, the senator from Vermont wound up in a losing match against Biden.

Debate season

Bernie Sanders did not end his campaign Wednesday. He called reporters to Burlington to say something else: “I very much look forward to the debate in Arizona with my friend Joe Biden.”

Yes, the 11th Democratic debate is going forward, still in Phoenix, with no audience, no media filing center, and no spin room. It may not resemble the past 10 debates as much as the town halls candidates have been holding with CNN, MNSBC and Fox News, events under the control of the campaigns and the TV partners.

Sanders was direct about his reasons for wanting this. His campaign was winning an “ideological debate” and a “generational debate,” one that Biden needed to face him on, directly. Hours after House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) suggested that the party should “shut this primary down” and cancel upcoming debates, Sanders argued passionately against that.

“We are strongly winning in two enormously important areas that will determine the future of our country,” Sanders said. “Poll after poll, including exit polls, show that a majority of people support our progressive agenda … [and] the younger generations of this country continue, in very strong numbers, to support our campaign.”

Sanders's brief statement did not make any of the arguments he'd closed out the Michigan campaign with. He'd run TV ads attacking Biden's NAFTA vote, and his (now-abandoned) flirtation with reducing Social Security benefits. On the stump, he'd gone after Biden's previous skepticism about abortion rights, too. In Burlington, those attacks disappeared, with Sanders instead arguing for a substantive debate on the issues that motivated his campaign: Medicare-for-all, free public college tuition, criminal justice restructuring and stopping “billionaires” from “buying elections.”

The senator from Vermont's tone was genteel, even a little wistful. He did not get into a premise shared by many on the left: that a heated debate will reveal Biden's weaknesses, giving Sanders another chance to reset the race.

“If the Democrats are going to choose a candidate to go one-on-one with Trump, we must first see that candidate go one-on-one in a primary debate,” said New York-based Democratic strategist Rebecca Katz. “This election is too important to have buyer’s remorse.” 

Candidate tracker

The Trump campaign has gotten testier about how the coronavirus response is making large public gatherings inadvisable. That does not pose a fundamental problem for Joe Biden, who has only recently begun to draw big crowds and whose electoral theory doesn't really need them.

“Joe Biden is looking for an excuse to get off the campaign trail, and let me just add, the media’s best hope is for Donald Trump to suspend his rallies,” said Trump spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany on Tuesday, per our colleague Felicia Sonmez.

Joe Biden. He will give remarks on the coronavirus outbreak from the Hotel DuPont in Wilmington, Del., on Thursday, having canceled a planned rally in Florida.

Bernie Sanders. He will appear on “The Tonight Show” from New York City tonight but has no other events on the schedule ahead of Sunday’s debate.

Dems in disarray

Tulsi Gabbard is still running for president, but you could be forgiven if you didn't notice.

The Hawaii congresswoman, who is giving up her safe seat to seek the White House, did not hold a single campaign event between Super Tuesday and yesterday's contests. She scheduled, then canceled, a town hall in Nevada, where the caucuses are long over and there are no delegates to win. 

Across the six states that voted yesterday, Gabbard ran no better than fifth-place showings in Missouri and Mississippi. In Michigan, she staggered into six place; on the rest of the map, she came in seventh. Candidates who had dropped out of the race days earlier regularly got more votes, most of it from early ballots, but not all.

In lieu of in-person appearances, Gabbard has been communicating to voters mostly through Fox News appearances, in which the network portrays her as a powerful woman being silenced by a political establishment. Yesterday, Gabbard chided the party for debate rules that will prevent “the only woman candidate left in the race, the only woman of color, and the first female combat veteran ever to run for the presidency” from appearing in Sunday's event in Phoenix. But Gabbard will miss the stage because the new rules require candidates to have won at least 20 percent of available delegates. After Tuesday, Gabbard has claimed just two of the 1,864 delegates selected so far, around 0.1 percent of the total.

If Sanders's defeats have emboldened the party's centrists, Gabbard's weakness has soothed their nerves about the threat of her running as a third-party candidate. Gabbard got 9,458 votes in Michigan, less than one-fifth as many Michigan votes as Green Party nominee Jill Stein won in November 2016.


… four days until the 11th Democratic debate
… six days until Super Tuesday III
… 13 days until the Georgia primary
… 18 days until the Puerto Rico primary